Rep. Jackie Speier on Friday shared her story of experiencing unwanted sexual advances in Congress, launching a #MeTooCongress campaign to raise awareness about sexual harassment and assault on Capitol Hill.
Speier (D-Calif.) urged former and current staffers to share their stories using the #MeTooCongress hashtag, a play on the #MeToo social media posts that have gone viral in reaction to the sexual harassment scandal involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Thousands of women used the hashtag to share their experiences, sparking dialogue about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment.
In the video, Speier said Joe Holsinger, chief of staff for then-Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.), held her face and forcibly kissed her when she was a congressional staffer. Speier did not name him in the video but identified him in response to media requests after the video published. Speier was about 23 or 24 at the time, and Holsinger was around 50. Holsinger died in 2004. His family could not be reached for comment.
“I know what it’s like to keep these things hidden deep down inside. I know what it’s like to lie awake at night wondering if I was the one who had done something wrong,” Speier said. “I know what it’s like years later, to remember that rush of humiliation and anger. You know what, many of us in Congress know what it’s like, because Congress has been a breeding ground for hostile work environment for far too long.”
Speier, who has unsuccessfully pushed to overhaul how harassment cases are handled in Congress, plans to introduce a bill next week to require anti-harassment training every year for all members and staffers and call for a survey to accurately gauge the scope of the problem.
On Thursday, Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) introduced a bill to require staffers to receive sexual harassment training every other year.
Congress makes its own rules about the handling of sexual complaints against members and staffers and has passed laws exempting it from practices that apply to other employers. There is no mandatory sexual harassment training for all employees; each office decides whether its staff should receive training. Federal agencies, in contrast, are required to provide anti-harassment training.
“It is not a victim-friendly process. It is an institution-protection process,” Speier recently told The Washington Post. “I think we would find that sexual harassment is rampant in the institution. But no one wants to know, because they’d have to do something about it.”
Employees can file lawsuits against perpetrators but only after going through months of counseling and mediation. In contrast, mediation is an option, not a requirement, for executive-branch employees.
And when settlements are made, they come out of a special U.S. treasury fund rather than an office’s funds, a requirement in other federal agencies. The congressional Office of Compliance, the agency tasked with offering sexual harassment training when requested, sent an email Friday morning reminding congressional offices to prioritize taking its sexual harassment training.
Since the #MeToo campaign has grown, lawmakers and lobbyists in statehouses across the country have adopted it to draw attention to sexual harassment in their industry. In California, more than 140 women, including legislators and State Capitol staffers, signed a letter calling it a “pervasive” problem in California politics and urging women to speak up about their experiences.
“There is nothing to fear in telling the truth, and it’s time to throw back the curtain on repulsive behavior that until now has thrived in the dark without consequences,” Speier said in her video message.
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